Task force targeting juveniles highlights need for tougher laws

Some juveniles arrested 20 times in past year
Posted at 10:30 PM, Jul 20, 2016

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri described juveniles committing multiple serious, and sometimes violent, felony crimes as a plague. And now, we are seeing numbers from a newly created task force that back that claim up.

The Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement program was created in May. More than 125 juveniles are on the list.  To be put on the list, the juveniles must have five or more felony arrests in a 12 month period. The juveniles are placed on probation, house arrest or ankle monitoring. There are 14 officers from nine different agencies tasked with checking on the the juveniles to make sure they aren’t out committing more crimes. Some juveniles on the list are as young as 13 years old.

“Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, they are right here in our community running around with guns,” Gualtieri said. "They have no respect for the system, and they are just a bunch of criminals that are out there trying to wreak havoc on the community."

Since the program started in May 'HOME' officers have arrested 89 juveniles for violating their probation. Officers who are not in the task force have arrested 23 juveniles while out on patrol.

“The numbers are high, but we anticipated that,” Gualtieri said. “It's bad that you have that number of arrests and that number of kids violating the terms of their probation or some other status causing their arrest. But, it’s good because in order to control it and bring those numbers down to get those kids in compliance, they are going to have to go up, at first.”

Gualtieri said some juveniles have no respect for law enforcement because there is “no punishment" from the system.

"Their attitude is [that] nothing is going to happen to me so why should I do what you say. When a kid goes out and commits a robbery, a burglary, auto theft, and does these things and they know the worst that is going to happen to them, and it doesn't happen very often, the worst thing is you are going to spend 21 days in the juvenile detention center,” said Gualtieri.

Once an offender is arrested, he or she is processed at the juvenile assessment center, and most times just released that same day. And it’s up to a judge to decide whether or not the teen will be incarcerated.  

“We've had kids we've arrested through the 'HOME' program that have been arrested three times in one night,” Gualtieri said.  

The sheriff said some teens are past the point of getting help. He hopes the 'HOME' program will get kids who can be helped back on track, if they know law enforcement are watching them and there are consequences to their actions.

“This enforcement effort is going to suppress the problem, but it's not going to solve it,” Gualtieri said. “That is why we have to look at some effective ways to deal with the kids through programming and resources to try and break the cycle, because it is a very complicated problem.”

Gualtieri believes the task force is working. Auto thefts are down 44 percent in June compared to last year. Even still, a majority of car thefts in Pinellas County are committed by juveniles.